A health visitor came to visit a few days after my daughter’s birth. She asked how the birth was. I stayed silent for a couple of minutes unable to answer. What was I to say? Fine? Fantastic? Grand? She only expected a one word answer: ‘normal’ would have pleased her. But those words don’t come near describing the textured, multi-layered, hormone-driven web of emotions and sensations that make up the experience of giving birth.
In part 1 of this post, I shared my journey to becoming interested in (obsessed with) storytelling. The question I ended with was how can the act of finding, sharing and listening to people’s personal stories be enough of a process in and for itself?
In this post, I share what I’ve learned from sharing insights with a thoughtful bunch of digital storytellers during the Un/Told Digital Storytelling conference.
I have accepted that the labels I use to describe my work mean everything and therefore nothing. Design. Social innovation. Storytelling. Ugh. We’re at a dinner party and I’ve already lost you.
I have just finished a learning marathon. A what? A learning marathon. What's that now? Well, according to Zahra Davidson, the founder of Enrol Yourself, a learning marathon is "a 6 month self-directed learning 'accelerator'. You pursue your goals from within a diverse, committed peer group - with access to the collective networks, skills and support."
I decided to apply to Enrol Yourself because I had just left Innovation Unit, and felt the need to spend some focused time on developing my design practice, but also because I feared the loneliness of being a freelancer.
I was not disappointed. There is true power in being surrounded by a supportive, creative community of interested people. Everyone else came to Enrol Yourself with an open mind and a hardworking mindset. Our motivations ranged from wanting to develop a new venture, to wanting to test a new project, or simply making time and space to reflect on an aspect of our career or practice.
I focused on what the role of design is in creating more hope and empathy in today's society. Through the 6 months, I explored storytelling as an approach for developing empathy, confidence and capabilities needed for participation in social action. Taking part in Enrol Yourself prompted me to start the Hope Rising podcast.
I recently collaborated with my colleague and friend Jo Harrington to run a slightly rebellious session at the 2017 Service Design in Government conference.
Between us, we have more than 15 years of experience applying service design in a public sector context. Together, we have mastered the grammar and vocabulary of 2 fascinating foreign languages: Servicedesignese and Publicsectorsh. On our travels, they have noticed, however, that these 2 languages contain a lot of words that seem to be at odds with the mission of both service designers and the public sector - which is, allegedly, to make humans happier. These words tend to fall under 5 categories:
- the words that dehumanise
- the words we hide behind
- the words that limit our creativity
- the words that damage our relationships
- the words that make reality seem simple when in fact it's beautifully messy
The session started with an unveiling of the top 10 most dangerous service design and public sector words. It then turned into a hands-on session building on theories and methods from the fields of linguistics, storytelling and speculative design.
A few weeks ago, my holy pair of every-single-day boots nearly died. These were reliable boots, which I wore everywhere, all the time, from fancy parties to mountains walks. I guess it shouldn’t come to a surprise that they almost died.
I hate shoe shopping - which probably led to the predicament above described - and I have one of the finest DIY mums who did her formative years during the seventies. So I decided to get them fixed.
First I tried the cobbler at my local tube station. I should have known the minute I entered the shop that my shoes… He took a look, shook his head and muttered a chilling: “No way!”
Not defeated, I tried another cobbler in Brixton, because he had done wonders on another hopeless pair a few years back. He was not as categorical as Mr. Tube Station, and took longer to examine the damage, and with a sorry smile gave me the verdict: “They are too far gone.” I lingered in the shop for a few seconds, trying to think of buts to encourage him to give it a go. A mind-reader, he said: “But if you really want them fixed, there is an old man in the arcade who will probably do it for you.”
And so I entered the aptly named Reliance Arcade full of hope. I found the old man behind a bric-à-brac of leather cuts, dusty tools, and a mount of other hopeless shoes… A mess. His mess. I said that I had been sent to him as a last resort. He smiled and proudly said: “I never say no to a job. Whatever you bring, I’ll fix it.” His marketing slogan - my kind of guy.
He had a look, and sighed. It was a hopeful sigh though. And what follows is a great example of how, in I think public services should operate. I I had my own Service Design Awards, this man would win gold.
First, he took his time to understand the problem. He took the time to explain to me why it was going to be a difficult job. Then he looked at the pair in more depth. Gave it the time needed.
Second, he tested a few solutions with me (the user!). He gave me two or three options for how he was going to fix them. He then showed me in details what he was going to do, explained the risks - that they might not end up looking as pretty. He also suggested I come and see him before they were ready to see the work in progress.
What more? He sensed my hopefulness and responded to it with more hope. “It won’t be easy, but if you like them and care about them, I will do it.” This man must have been a student of Yoda. Not “I will try it” but “I will do it.”
Now, imagine if we approached every problem, or rather every human with with the same positivity? Over the last 5 years, working as a service designer in the public sector, I have heard too many stories of people who, because they were “too complex” were passed around from service to service because nobody had the guts to say: “it’s going to be hard, but I believe we can do it.” I know humans are not shoes. But the point is not the shoes. It’s the hope.
I have now left my job, because I no longer want to be a service designer. I want to be a hope-maker. What form that takes, I have a few months to figure it out.
I am just back from a few days in Lithuania. I was invited to join Social Design Platform, a 3 day seminar and workshop on social design organised by Dovilė Gaižauskienėv and Jurga Želvytė, and joined by social designers Tabo Goudswaard, Paul Gofferje, Tau Ulv Lenskjold and Ainė Petrulaitytė.
The first half was a seminar, where we each presented our work to students of Vilnius Arts University. The feedback from the students made me realise how lucky I am to be working in this field in the UK, where there is already a strong scene advocating for the use of design methodology in the public or third sector. At the end of the presentations, one student came to me, visibly emotional, and said that she felt she now had a sense of purpose. I was really touched by it.
The second half of the workshop was spent in a beautiful house in the Lithuanian countryside, where we worked together to investigate, through immersive research, new possibilities for Rukla, a town lacking a sense of identity, belonging, and life, besides an army camp, a refugee centre, and a transient local community.
"Vulnerability is actually the courage to show up and be seen." Brené Brown
It's only Monday, and I've already been positively challenged twice. The first time was when I realised how uncomfortable it is for me to share my feelings. The second time was when I listened to someone talk about the impact that Michelle Obama speech had on her.
And both are related.
So, let's talk a bit about the first challenge. I've always known I was a private person. The quiet child, the one who reads a lot, the one who chooses silence and observation, the one who doesn't reveal much about her internal life. It probably comes from having had to share my room with my siblings until I was 18. The yearn for privacy and autonomy that comes with it. It also probably comes from the fear of being judged for the ridiculousness of that internal life.
It probably comes from a lot of different places, but the fact is, I'm a listener. I love asking weird questions. I'm fascinated by the stories of others.
My job as a design researcher means that I spend a lot of time listening to people. And I'm looking for that empathy. I want to connect with their experiences, and I want to make them feel truly heard. But somehow, tonight, (I joined this brilliant workshop on empathy skills), it was my turn to be heard. And I realised I didn't like the feeling of being heard. It felt that my truth, which I so rarely share, was suddenly being seen by another person, and with too much lucidity (the person I was sharing with was a brilliant listener). So for some reason, what should have felt like a moment of clarity felt like terribly hard work.
When I'm doing research with people, I sometimes spend half a day, sometimes a whole day with them, uncovering their story. This experience was a nice reminder of how generous the people I encounter during ethnographic research really are. Laying out your vulnerabilities in the open for others to see is a hell of lot harder than jumping in a freezing outdoor pool, as I did earlier today.
This brings me to my second challenge. At that same empathy workshop (which I really recommend) I listened to (this was my more comfortable space, listening) a woman telling me how much the reactions bringing down Trumps' attacks on women have affected her. She talked about a sense of relief and empowerment in finally being able to speak up and express discomfort and anger without having to justify or question these feelings. And she talked about Michelle Obama's speech as a catalyst for this sense of empowerment.
Very few times in my life have I experienced real leadership. In fact, I don't think I have at all. What Michelle Obama did was that she fearlessly, and in the most dignified way, shared some of her core feelings. And by doing so, she connected to the core feelings of so many women (and men). She allowed her vulnerability to shine through and helped to legitimise our discomfort and anger in the face of both micro- and macro-aggressions against women.
And re-watching that speech, I learned a thing or two about leadership: it takes strength to be vulnerable in public, but being vulnerable in public is necessary to connecting with and empowering a crowd.
I guess I still have a lot of work to do!
I wrote this blog a year and a month ago, as I was turning 30. Some reflection on the healing power of storytelling.
I don’t know if it’s a syndrome that strikes all humans, but turning 30 made me want to write more. It made me want to write more about myself. About parts of myself I have never shared. One of the reasons why I have this urge might simply be that I need to get these things out of my system to keep growing as a person. Another reason might be that I feel the need to make sense of me. Who I am, where I come from, why am I here. The usual self-indulgent existential crap.
Now, a few days before I turned 30 years old, this essay, entitled “I am not a story”, by British philosopher Galen Strawson appeared on various social media, and persisted to remind me of its existence until today, when I finally took the time to read it. It couldn’t be better timing, because that essay is explores, or rather, dismisses the idea promoted by thinkers he bundles up together as “narrativists” that ‘each of us constructs and lives a “narrative”, and that ‘this narrative is us’ (Oliver Sachs). Instead, he says, we experience life in non-linear, fragmented ways. Life is a collection of moments that don’t make sequential sense, and assuming otherwise is dangerous, because it is “a recipe for inauthenticity”. To paraphrase, storifying yourself is a lie. I guess it’s true. And you just have to look at social media to realise that. When you make a story, all the things you leave out are almost as important as what you put in. Not just all the things you leave out, but also all the things you glorify. All the things you find pretty words or images for.
But what this argument dismisses is that some lives are so fucked up that they need story. They need narrative. They need meaning. I agree that you are not your story. You cannot be reduced to a story. But you can use story to find sense.
Over the last few months, I have worked on a participatory storytelling project with people who have experienced homelessness, abuse, addiction, prison… In short, people who have had really tough lives. Who have survived so much that I found it hard to believe they were standing in front of me. Not only standing in front of me, but also smiling, being human, being kind, and generously sharing the insight they have on their past.
Of course not all the stories made narrative, sequential sense. In some cases, a decade would go unmentioned, as if it generated no meaningful facts or events to cling onto. But that’s not the point. Memory is not the point. Fact is not the point. The point is that sometimes, finding your narrative is part of healing.
After having spent days meeting and listening to 12 people who have experienced, or are experiencing these issues, we held an event, where we shared their stories with other people who have gone through similar experiences, as well as people who deliver and commission homelessness, probation, addiction or mental health services. After the event, we interviewed Tex, one of the participants who had shared his own story with us. He said:
“I’ve come to realise that the majority of us had the same experiences in childhood that have led us on the path we are today.”
Often, going back to this childhood trauma, and understanding why or how that trauma sent you down a certain path was the first step to recovering, to start “living your truth”. Telling your life story is incredibly hard, and it’s imperfect. But it’s also bloody helpful.
“I don’t mind sharing my truth with whoever. Because I’ve realised that without confronting my truth… life seems worthless to me… I don’t think I’m on the planet to lie… I’m sticking by my truth. The large majority of my life has been based on lies, having to pretend to suit certain environments, to please certain people. No more. I shall be myself.”
“Imagine that, in the space of a year, you become unrecognizable to those around you and to yourself. You look in the mirror, but the person staring back at you is a stranger. You endure the stares of pity from those who knew you before your illness, fully aware that they believe you have ‘let yourself go’ or otherwise allowed this to happen to your body. Strangers and new friends only know you this way, and think you’re a fat, minging, moaning, disabled hag with a beard and scraggy hair and always have been this way.”
As part of a piece of research about people’s expectations for the future of healthcare in the UK, I recently visited a woman called Abbie* in her home, in the North of England. Abbie has four children, a great sense of humour, and a loving husband. She also has a rare and little-known illness called Cushing’s syndrome. Abbie’s illness is associated with high rates of mortality, and has, over the last few years, caused a drastic change in her physical appearance and her mobility.
The quote above is an extract from a little booklet Abbie has put together for friends and family. In it, she explains her condition and her symptoms, with a great dose of wit and honesty. She also writes about the emotional impact the illness has had on her. She writes about having to adapt to her new body. She writes about seeing a change in how other people perceive her. She writes about being acutely aware of her own mortality, while trying as hard as she can to carry on as normal. Mostly, she expresses a need to not be judged.
After years of battling through misdiagnosis, painful medical exams, and conflictual relationships with doctors, Abbie has decided she needed to tell and share her story, in her own words. The reason why I find Abbie’s booklet touching is that she doesn’t talk about what is right or wrong with the NHS, or about how the rareness of her condition sets her apart from others. She talks about life, death, and love. She talks about what makes us human, and what is common to all of us. She gives people around her a tool to connect with her deepest self, beyond the external manifestations of her illness, and provides guidance to those who are not sure how to support her.
To me, Abbie’s booklet is an example of the power of storytelling.
Indeed, if you are vaguely human, the likelihood is that, reading that paragraph, you felt a connection, you searched for times where you have felt this way, or tried to project what it would be like to feel this way. You might have had a faint sense that the situation was unfair and things needed to change. Or, if you are of the inquisitive kind, you’ve wanted to know more and understand the context. Either way, you’ve accepted Abbie’s invitation to step away from your current reality and “imagine that…”
“Imagining that…” is exactly what we support public sector leaders to do, whether we are designing new kinds of hospitals to respond to the population’s changing needs; reinventing mental health services so that they focus less on the illness and more on the wellness; or transforming the way schools engage with students and their communities. Of course, we go beyond the “imagine that…” stage, and help make those visions happen in real life as well.But innovation often starts with a shift in mindset. And storytelling is a wonderful tool to help us do that, for the following reasons, which Abbie’s booklet illustrates so well:
Stories make people care – they can be used to generate empathy or mobilise people;
Stories break down barriers – they can flatten hierarchies, and bring people together;
Stories help people comprehend – they can illustrate complex issues, and provide structure and meaning to an otherwise chaotic reality;
Stories help people suspend disbelief – they can prompt new ways of seeing, encourage creative thinking, and blow away pessimism;
Stories are empowering – they can help make those who tell them feel ownership over the need to make change happen.
These are five reasons why innovators and change-makers within the public sector should pay more attention to the kinds of stories they are telling and listening to.
We all know that to have any impact at all, innovation needs to be driven by the needs and aspirations of people who will benefit from it. However, in a public sector dealing with lack of funds, staff shortages, political instability, it is not always easy for people who design and deliver public services to pause, listen, and reconnect with their purpose. In this context, stories of everyday people serve to generate new kinds of evidence about what matters to people, and about what is and isn’t working. They also provide an emotional connection, necessary to mobilise sometimes sceptical civil servants around the need for change.
My work at the Innovation Unit, is about trying to bridge the gap between those who are ‘at the receiving end’ of public services, and those who make decisions about how the public sector should be shaped and delivered. Our team of service designers, researchers and facilitators do this by bringing people’s stories to life; looking for insights into opportunities for change; and visioning and prototyping future-proof services.
Multi-media storytelling allows you to delve deeply into the joys, pains, wisdoms and struggles of those telling their stories – a level of honesty and humility that comes across only with real lives and real voices. By bringing emotion into play, providers are able to breathe fresh life into services, and users are given a legitimate reason to believe they are speaking amongst friends.